Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) was born into a privileged life, working his way up in a secret society, The Order of the Skull and Bones. From there, Wilson was plucked to join a team of Americans (including Robert De Niro, John Turturro, and Alec Baldwin) who wanted to fight a new battle against the rise of Communism and overall evil that threatened the nation. Wilson, newly married (Angelina Jolie) with a young son, signed up for the job, taking him on a 30-year career of a cancerous cloak and dagger lifestyle that he prized more than his own existence.
It's hard to believe that "The Good Shepherd" is only Robert De Niro's second directorial effort (after 1993's "A Bronx Tale"). He's America's finest actor, committed to excellence even in the face of unbelievably rank material, and his dedication is a trait that the industry could use more of. "Shepherd" reflects De Niro's focus: meticulous, unflinching, and exhaustive. The filmmaker has done the unthinkable here: he's made the C.I.A. interesting.
Cold-blooded is the best way to describe "Good Shepherd." It's a dramatic look at the birth of the C.I.A., showing men who have crammed their emotions into never-never land as they build America's quietest defense. De Niro keeps events and characters unapologetic, mimicking the cold war tingles and subterfuge of the time period. For big screen, multi-million dollar entertainment, De Niro is awfully brave to keep so much emotion and nuance close to the chest. Still, the man has his details to enjoy.
Matt Damon is our conductor on the train of intrigue, and while the actor is in every scene, he's a veritable Silent Bob throughout the film. Edward Wilson was a withdrawn, chilly witness to years of murder and betrayal; an astute judge of loyalty and a billboard for absentee fatherhood. He was someone who handed his country his life only to see it boomerang back to threaten his own family. Damon performs the character beautifully, staring out from behind thick glasses that smother his pinpoint poker face, but the mistakes that Wilson makes register on the actor's mug in miniature, wounding ways.
The rest of the ensemble gets to be a little more flagrant and booming in their expressions of dread and frustration, but Damon isn't afforded such luxuries; it's amazing what he can accomplish with so little breathing space.
"Shepherd" eventually boils down to a nearly three-hour portrait of the evil that white men do. It's a lengthy journey, but one that De Niro crafts with razor sharp precision, filling the frame with era details and a palpable feeling of menace. "Shepherd" isn't peppy or welcoming; instead the film shows the icy rise of counter-intelligence, mostly through dead stares, passive-aggressive metaphors, and implied threats. The film has distance; a purposeful choice by De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth. The tempo takes some getting used to, but it's only a matter of time before the sinister urge of the C.I.A. takes hold, and De Niro's aesthetic choices start to find their groove.
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